Canons Ecclesiastical 1604

Bishop Bancroft. Head commissioner of 1604 Canons

Anglican formulas have suffered a number of erroneous assertions regarding their confessional application and breadth. The idea that Anglicanism is characterized by ‘temperament’ ( i.e.,  silence upon controversial points, avoidance of party disputes,  classical tenets of faith treated ‘indifferently’, etc ) rather than ‘confession’ is an imprint carried over from the late Hanoverian reign of latitudinarianism.  At times it is surprising how liberal polemics creep themselves into otherwise conservative Anglican apologetics.  Looking particularly at the 1604 Canon we find the Articles of 1562 indeed possess a binding quality for both clergy and laity, albeit in different ways.

Minister Censures:
The Jacobean canons essentially carried over the same discipline given by Tudor monarchs. Within them we find canon 36 which reasserts the subscriptionism of Whitgift’s 1583 Three Articles: “No person shall be received into the Ministry…nor suffered to preach, to catechize, to be a Lecturer or Reader” without rendering an ex animo oaths with respect to the King’s canonical Supremacy, the 1562 Articles of Religion, and 1559 Prayer Book, “avoiding all ambiguities”.  Together these three standards described the Church of England’s primitivism, removing all novelties from her faith and order. Hence, the Articles (with the other formulae) not only proclaim and guard the Creeds and Councils of the first five centuries, but they also refute peculiar Roman and Anabaptist errors by the same reason. The question, therefore, is not if the length of the 39 Articles binds conscience, but if the particular points found therein gird and prove the catholic faith?

“Length” was no more an indication of catholicity than the prolixity of the RCC today or the Genevan of 1536. Genevan confessions, irrespective of length (Calvin’s version was only 21 points long), might be criticized for inviting interpretations more typical of Zurich’s extreme iconoclasm. In contrast, the 39 Articles uphold catholic faith by approving the ancient traditions of the church. Regardless, all public ministers—whether clergy or professors—were indeed required to give unfeigned assent to a confession, and, in England, the violation of canon 36 resulted in revocation of preaching license for one-year if not deposition and excommunication.

Lay Penalties:
While confessions were primarily intended for clergy and public teachers, laity were introduced to their principles by way of catechism and sermon. Although the 39 Articles never determined inclusion in communion (or any other sacrament in the Prayer book), it did provide an implicit framework for worship which men either endured or gave their  “amen”—be it the liturgy of the BCP, the substance of divers sermons, or more advanced expositions upon the catechism. Wardens and vestry sidemen could file complaints against recidivist lay members who missed worship. Nor could members  neglect the sending of children or servants to catechism at evening prayer (without pain of suspension or excommunication–canon 59). While lay people were never asked to subscribe to Articles, obedience to subscribing ministers (and their teaching function) was norm.

Perhaps the real difference between lay and clergy was laity was the difference in ‘heartfelt assent’. Where laity disagreed, they ought to remain publicly silent. The 1604 canons forbade laity to impugne Articles in private gatherings, chapels, or university (etc.). Those who spoke against the Articles not only gave answer to the scrutiny of ecclesiastical officials but stood chance (by canon 27) of excommunication (which often accompanied loss of civil rights) along with the brand of “schismatic”. Consequently, Anglican restrictions were very similar to the Genevan codes. Regarding the status of the 39 Articles, Canon 5 said,

“Whosoever shall hereafter affirm, That any of the nine and thrity Articles agreed upon by the Archbishops and Bishops of both provinces, and the whole Clergy, in the Convocation holden at London, in the year of our Lord God one thousand five hundred sixty-two, for avoiding diversities of opinions, and for the establishing of  consent touching true Religion, are in any part superstitious or erroneous, or such as he may not with good conscience subscribe unto; let him be excommunicated ipso facto, and not restored, but only by the Archbishop, after his repentance, and publick revocation of such his wicked errors.”

Democratic ideals led to the eventual dismantlement of the England’s Protestant or Erastian system of tiered liberties and rights. Nonetheless, the canons testify to a confessional nature, from 1571 to 1865, where clergy subscribed and lay people passively received. The penalties and enforcement of these standards were little different from Calvinist churches, but unlike other Protestant realms, the substance of English formulae clung close to primitive, true religion. This was not according to ‘liberal temperament’ or ‘democratic compromise’ but by the great esteem and knowledge of both antiquity and scripture amongst English divinity.

3 responses to “Canons Ecclesiastical 1604

  1. A most interesting article and indeed Blog!
    I agree with most of your comments, how-and-ever, you avoid the most important matter and that is the renewed Anglican Subscription to the Seven Ecumenical Councils. It is these that preserve the Catholicity of the Anglican Church and the Articles with the Canons have to be seen through the light brought by the Seven Ecumenical Councils . 1537/43/1559 and 1572 the belief of the Anglican Church in these Councils was renewed! If anything, after Revelation and Scripture highlights Anglicanism it is the belief in the Councils and what they stand for !Antiquity!

    For favour of Publication!


  2. An excellent post!

    Unless we go behind the Glorious Revolution to the original texts, we are quit likely to find ourselves duped into believing that classical Anglicanism is simply a comprehensive mishmash without clear definition. But as the post demonstrates, the creation of “Anglican Fudge” is a much more recent thing!


  3. Dear Death,

    I’ve been reading Dr.Henry Wheeler’s History and Exposition on the 25 Articles of the Methodist Episcopal Church (1908). Methodism is surprisingly high church (in the old, original sense). I’ve gotten some fascinating insights from his most excellent history. Regarding the authority of the Articles, he says:

    p. 5, “The English Articles in their earliest form were the product of many bishops and divines. As the Roman Catholic Church contained all that was positive in Christian doctrine, the English Reformers found it difficult to prepare Articles which simply denied teachings of that Church contrary to the Word of God; they therefore adopted as a foundation an article declaring that the whole doctrine of the Christian religion is contained in the scriptures, and that therefore they would admit no Article till it had been proved from Scripture.
    The Articles were not the work of any one eminent theologian; were not devised by any Council, Conference, or Convocation. They were a growth, a development calculated to meet and resist errors that had arisen in the Church of Christ in different centuries. They mark the struggles of the Church too arrive at a clear and correct definition of truth, to emerge from error and guard herself against inroads of dangerous heresies. They bear the marks of many minds. For foundation they go back to Christ and the apostles, since very positive assertion of doctrine must be founded upon God’s Word and every negative declaration must be justified by the same infallible rule…”

    p. 13, “Against this view it is contended that the design of such Articles is not to sum up the whole of Christianity, but merely to set forth the belief of a given Church upon the leading truths of religion, as well as touching those matters that have been subjects of heretical corruption or controversy, and respecting which it is necessary that there be, for the sake of peace, agreement among members of the same Church. Articles of Religion are not intended to be guides through all the voyage of Christian inquiry, but beacon lights to inform the mariner where lie those rocks and shoals in which preceding voyagers have made shipwreck. A rational religious faith without dogma is impossible; that is, some authoritative formula is indispensable for that which is to be believed as true and defensible doctrine. Articles of Religion form a brief summary of truth which will serve as a guide to those lacking time and capacity for original investigation. Such persons, by them, will be encouraged and given confidence that they are standing on firm foundations laid by wise master-builders with materials taken from the Word of God.”

    The footnotes at the bottom of p. 5 were likewise interesting:

    “It may seem strange that good and intelligent men of such widely different views could conscientiously subscribe to the same Articles of Religion. The learned Dr. William Paley, a celebrated divine of the English Church, takes a broad view of assent by the clergy: ‘They who contend that nothing less can justify subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles than the actual belief of each and every separate proposition contained in them must suppose that the legislature expected the consent of ten thousand men, and that in perpetual succession, not to one controverted proposition, but to many hundreds. It is difficult to conceive how this could be expected by any who observed the incurable perversity of human opinion upon all subjects short of demonstration’.
    If the authors of the law did not intend this, what did they intend? They intended to exclude from offices in the Church,
    1. All abettors of popery
    2. Anabaptists, who were at that time a powerful party on the continent.
    3. The puritans, who were hostile to an Episcopal constitution; and, in general, the members of such leading sects or foreign establishments as threatened to overthrow our own.
    Whoever finds himself comprehended within these descriptions ought not to subscribe. Nor can a subscriber to the Articles take advantage of any latitude which our rule may seem to allow, who is not first convinced that he is truly and substantially satisfying the intention of the legislature”

    Every tender society has rules of conduct, mission, belief, etc… Why is the Church expected to be the least of so?


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